Exactly three weeks from today, on 29 March, the deadline arrives for the United Kingdom to exercise its decision to leave the European Union. And with an agreement between the two partners apparently as far off as it ever was, the big question is: what will the UK and the EU look like on 30 March? Only time will tell, and time is what the chief customs officer for Belgium, Kristian Vanderwaeren, is advising for business. Vanderwaeren, according to a report in De Tijd, is calling for a “Brexit pause” – a moratorium on imports and exports to and from Belgian ports, to allow time for the situation to become clear.
“Major industries like pharmaceuticals companies and car manufacturers are already prepared. They’re waiting to see hat happens, and already built up stocks in the UK months ago. But who re we as a customs authority to give advice to the business world? We are simply asking small and medium-sized companies and other parties to hold off. And make the necessary deliveries to your customers before 29 March.”
According to Vanderwaeren, Zeebrugge faces a difficult problem, with customs officials there estimating that one in ten lorries passing through the port going to and coming from the UK will not have the proper documentation.
“If that’s the case, we have a big problem,” he said. “We have made plans with other law enforcement offices and with the private sector to get those lorries out of the terminal so that regular trade is not held up.”
Belgian customs have written to 20,000 companies who do business with the UK to inform them that after Brexit, they will need to have an Economic Operators Registration and Identification (EORI) number for trading with Britain. So far, despite a call centre being set up to answer any queries, only 4,700 companies – fewer than one in five – have responded.
The call from the customs chief was criticised by Voka, the Flemish chamber of commerce, who have been counselling good preparation rather than any Brexit pause.
“We have already gathered our companies together and prepared along with them, in dozens of sessions, with the support of Flanders Investment and Trade and even with the help of customs themselves, to encourage them to build up stocks,” Voka CEO Hans Maertens told Trends magazine. The suggestion of a Brexit pause, Maertens said, would simply create alarm and anxiety.